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Dragonfly signs Celgene as partner for NK cell platform

Extends presence in haemato-oncology and solid tumours

dragonfly

Immuno-oncology start-up Dragonfly Therapeutics has bagged a $24 million licensing deal from Celgene for two cancer therapeutics based on natural killer (NK) cells.

The latest investment comes after it made $83m in payments for options on up to eight candidates for haematological cancers as well as solid tumours based on Dragonfly’s TriNKET technology, which consists of a linker molecule that binds to proteins on the surface of cancer cells as well as NK cells.

According to Dragonfly, once both are bound, the NK cells are activated to attack the tumour directly, and also recruit other immune cells (T and B cells) to the immune response. NK cells are part of the innate immune response, while T cells and B cells work via a different pathway known as the adaptive response, attacking the tumours directly and via antibodies, respectively.

That differentiates TriNKETs from other immuno-oncology approaches such as checkpoint inhibitors and CAR-T therapies which work through the adaptive immune response only, says the Cambridge, Masachusetts-based biotech.

Celgene – one of the top blood cancer companies – has seen enough to encourage it to license two of the eight programmes at $12m apiece plus development milestones and royalties, before the candidates have progressed to clinical trials. It’s a minor investment for the big biotech, which expects revenues to hit $15bn this year - but an important endorsement for the start-up.

So far, the deals have meant Dragonfly hasn’t had to go down the usual approach of multiple venture capital rounds to fund its operations. The company was formed in 2015 by cancer researcher Tyler Jacks, UC Berkeley immunologist David Raulet, and Bill Haney, a Disney filmmaker and tech entrepreneur who now serves as Dragonfly’s CEO.

Rob Hershberg

Celgene's Robert Hershberg

“While no novel mechanism can be proven until it is fully clinically validated, we are excited about the opportunity these TriNKET drug candidates offer for immunotherapies for patients,” said Celgene’s business development head Robert Hershberg. 

There’s no word yet on when the two licensed programmes will start clinical testing, but Dragonfly has said it expects to filed for approval to start trials of in-house candidates next year.

Celgene has been signing a string of research partnerships and licensing deals in the last couple of years to diversify its portfolio and reduce its reliance on Revlimid (lenalidomide), a drug for blood cancers that it expects to approach $10bn in sales this year. Foremost among these was its $9bn acquisition of CAR-T specialist Juno.

In October, the big biotech said it is preparing to file five new products between now and the end of 2020 that according to William Blair analysts could collectively reach $9bn in peak sales.

Article by
Phil Taylor

14th December 2018

From: Research

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